London, December 5, 1921. Great Britain was haunted by a specter, that of women’s football. Appeared in war factories during the First World War, it is enjoying growing success: there are nearly 150 teams in the country; the matches draw large crowds, sometimes up to 50,000 people; the first international meetings against the French women aroused popular enthusiasm. In addition, the press is particularly appreciative of the game of footballers and some have even become professional.
In November 1920, the English crossed the Channel and imposed a scathing defeat on the French. Result: 5-0. One match among a series of meetings arousing a fabulous popular craze. In the 1920s, women’s football clubs were legion. © Femina Sport
This worries the caciques of the very respectable Football Association, the English football federation. On December 5, 1921, therefore, its Federal Council adopted a radical resolution: it prohibited its regional associations, clubs, referees and leaders affiliated with it from supporting women’s football, in particular by lending their land for meetings or by providing technical and arbitration assistance. In the process, the federation condemns for example Winchester City FC to a very heavy fine for having lent its ground to the women’s teams of Plymouth and Seaton.
By adopting this resolution, the leaders of English football do not claim to prohibit the practice. They mark their refusal to integrate women and hope that, for lack of material and financial support, women’s football will gradually disappear. Objective achieved: it experiences a rapid ebb and becomes confidential. Some Britons are still kicking the round ball but in front of very weak audience, in the most complete anonymity.
In defense, Alice Milliat
On the continent, the practice follows another trajectory. In France and Belgium, where women’s football was established in large urban centers, it experienced some development until the mid-1920s: official competitions – cup and championship – were set up under the aegis of the federations. national women’s sports and, in partnership with feminist newspapers such as “la Française”, national selections are organized to compete in international meetings, influential leaders of Belgian and French sport support the practice.
The enthusiasm is such that the main propagandist of women’s sport, Alice Milliat, plans to make football the team sport of choice for the International Women’s Sports Federation (FSFI), which she created in 1921 and chairs (1). She tries to convince the representatives of the countries affiliated to this organization. At the same time, it approached the service of French works abroad (Sofe), attached to the Quai d’Orsay, to subsidize international meetings, but it was unsuccessful. Its authority within the FSFI was contested from 1926. It lost its influence and was forced to make many concessions, especially in the choice of team sport which should be privileged by the FSFI.
Basketball for some, athletics for others
Different women’s sports federations are indeed seeking to promote their national sport: the Americans and Canadians offer basketball, the Yugoslavs and Czechoslovakians are trying to impose hazena (a sport of Slavic origin close to handball), while the Germans and Swedes prefer handball. Overall, women’s football is too little popular and is not part of an international dynamic as is the case for athletics and women’s basketball. These two sports make their debut in the Olympic Games and occupy an important place at the World Games for women’s sport.
In France and Belgium, a few dozen women continued to play after 1925 but, as in Great Britain, the practice became confidential. And its establishment in Austria, the Netherlands, Romania and Yugoslavia during the 1930s hardly changed the situation since the national football federations of these countries condemn the female game.
A sport adopted by feminists
We had to wait for the years 1960-1970 to see things evolve. While feminist movements are developing in the Western world, women intend to break with the gendered codes of physical activity: they adopt football. If the opponents are still numerous, these footballers receive the support of part of the public.
In France, for example, the specialized communist press – “Le Miroir des sports” and “le Miroir du football” – and the women’s union press such as “Antoinette” are opening their columns to women’s football. In Italy, the practice is encouraged within the Unione Italiana Sport Popolare (UISP), which belongs to the communist movement.
© Bettmann Archive via Getty
Takeover of the “mercanti”
But the decisive impetus is given by businessmen. In many countries, especially Italy, they are taking control of women’s football. Their objective is not the emancipation of women through the round ball, but to organize shows playing on the unusual side of women’s football, in order to generate significant revenue. These “mercanti” are at the origin of many international meetings. The most dynamic are Italians.
After having organized the first European Nations Championship in Turin in 1969, they were behind the creation, in February 1970, of the International and European Federation of Women’s Football (Fieff). It is responsible for ensuring the organization of major international competitions. The first Women’s World Cup was held in Italy in 1970. A year later, Mexico hosted the second edition, the final of which was held at the Azteca stadium in Mexico City in front of 100,000 people. It must be said that the Italian leaders of Fieff have a certain know-how in terms of organizing major sporting events. For example, they resorted to sports sponsorship, which was still rare at the time: firms such as Martini Rosso aperitifs were partners of the event.
The rejection of gender confusion
The national men’s football federations, which had tried to contain this push by women by offering them to give up their status as a player and simply join the refereeing body, now fear for their monopoly on the organization of football. They therefore decided, with the European Union of Association Football (UEFA), to recognize the practice: between 1970 and 1972, most of them integrated women. Things were slower in the south of Europe: in Italy, Spain and Portugal, the game was not recognized until 1980. In Norway, where women were still not very interested, it was not until 1978.
This integration of women into official bodies is not, however, synonymous with immediate progress. The male leaders of the national federations and UEFA have succeeded in putting an end to the rivalry between them and the businessmen of Fieff. This was their main goal when it came to recognizing women’s football. But they are reluctant to expand the practice.
First of all, they reject any confusion of genres. The rules put in place for women are different: the balls are smaller, the playing time is less. Above all, young girls under the age of 13 are prohibited from playing football and mixed. So many measures that limit the qualitative and quantitative progress of women’s football. Male leaders struggle to organize competitions for women.
A dynamic discipline in Asia
We have to wait several years to see the appearance of the first official competitions. In France and Germany, for example, where the practice was recognized in 1970, footballers had to wait until 1974 to see the National Football Federation organize the first national championship. It was not until 1984 that UEFA organized the first European Nations Championship in women’s football. As for a European interclub women’s cup, the equivalent of the men’s Champions League, it was not created until 2001, thirty years after the recognition of women’s football by UEFA. The International Federation of Association Football (Fifa) also slows down the integration process by setting up a football world cup only in 1991.
Since 1991, the Women’s World Cup has been played every four years, just like for the men.
She is forced to do so because of the dynamism of women’s football in Asia. In 1968, an Asian Ladies Football Confederation (ALFC) was created. She became active especially after 1975, proposing in particular to organize regular World Cups. Fifa intervenes by specifying that it is the only organization able to organize this competition. On the other hand, it grants the ALFC the right to organize an international tournament. In the early 1980s, Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China, the two hereditary enemies, competed to host this international tournament which brought together Asian and European women’s teams. Taiwan hosted it in 1981 and 1984, People’s Republic of China in 1983 and also in 1984. They are still competing to be the host country of the first FIFA Women’s World Cup. The latter has indeed decided, in view of the success of the international tournaments of the ALFC (the finals being able to be disputed in front of 40,000 spectators), to create its own competition reserved for women. It was finally the People’s Republic of China which was chosen in 1991. Since then, the Women’s Football World Cup has been held every four years, as for the men. The last edition, won by the Americans ahead of the Dutch, took place in France in 2019.
The results of these competitions reflect the inequalities in the development of the practice. They are in fact dominated by the nations of northern Europe – Sweden, Germany, the Netherlands – and the United States, that is to say where women represent a large proportion of licensees from their national federation. of football. For the countries of northern Europe, this can be explained by advances in gender equality compared to those in the south of the continent. In the United States, it is the lesser importance given to football by American society which explains why women have been able to have easier access to practice. The national sports are basketball, American football and ice hockey, so many sports popular with men.
In the XXIe century, millions of viewers
For women’s club football, it’s a little different. German and Swedish clubs obtain convincing results. But their hegemony is contested by women’s teams from southern Europe, which benefit from the structures of major men’s clubs. This is how the 2020 and 2021 editions of the Women’s Champions League were won by the French from Olympique Lyonnais and the Spanish from FC Barcelona respectively.
In any case, women’s football for national selections and women’s football for clubs have a stimulating effect on the development of the practice: the number of licensees increases, as do the broadcast audiences – each match of the French women’s team during the season. World Cup 2019 attracted around 10 million viewers. Better, some players, like the American Megan Rapinoe, reach the status of star of the round ball, like the men, and women’s football attracts a growing number of sponsors. These are all elements that point to further progress in the coming years.